line drawing in orange on cream background with worker at desk, head in hand, in front of computer
line drawing in orange on cream background with worker at desk, head in hand, in front of computer

Don’t ignore the side effects of remote work. Take action.

Susie Hall
Dec 22, 2020 · 4 min read

Near the end of this summer, while everyone was interested in finding the “New Normal,” our Chicago InsideOut Design Leader Community had the brilliant idea of exploring the dark side of remote work. Much has happened since then–and the New Normal remains a mystery–but their insights are too good not to share.

At this point, design teams are getting used to a virtual world, and most are interested in a future that includes a remote component and flexible work arrangements. No one seems to agree on exactly what that looks like, but as long as asynchronous schedules are around, the unintended consequences of remote work are here to stay. So let’s take a look at some of the challenges of leading a virtual team and some possible solutions to overcome them.

CHALLENGE #1: Loss of chance interactions and informal exchanges that build trust, relationships, and engagement.

In today’s environment, senior design leaders fear losing a sense of culture and connection, something on which productive creative teams generally depend. Without a reason to connect, employees drift apart, and collaboration suffers. Though it’s not easy to replicate a water cooler experience, there are ways to improve the odds of casual interactions.

  • Use online communication tools to encourage informal connections with channels that promote non-work chat (#cool_stuff, #made_you_smile, #show_and_tell, #twinning).

CHALLENGE #2: Asynchronous schedules make collaboration difficult, and work hours seem nonstop.

Working parents and caretakers experience constant disruption. Staff living alone crave purpose and distraction. Unique personal situations have led to flexible work arrangements that have extended standard business hours and brought employees to exhaustion. But there’s hope. By creating standards and guarding time, leaders set the stage for balance.

  • Communicate openly about scheduling challenges to help staff understand the why and set expectations for when staff should be available for one another.

CHALLENGE #3: It’s hard to know when/if people are actually working when they are remote.

Being able to see staff at work in an office environment is certainly easier than wondering what they’re doing at home. Add in constantly changing priorities and tight deadlines, and it’s no wonder leaders are concerned about their employees putting in the time needed to hit deadlines. Leading with trust and creating visibility goes a long way to creating highly productive remote teams.

  • Give people interesting problems and ample support, then focus on outcomes, not hours. Inspired staff want to contribute, and underperformance will show up in lack of output.

CHALLENGE #4: Burnout. Zoom/video meeting fatigue, missing the “5-minute room change” breaks, and lack of time to get work done.

Another issue created by not being in person has been an increased volume of meetings. While the intent may have been to stay connected, the hours spent on screen decrease engagement and create unnecessary stress. A responsible approach to both video and meetings in general provides boundaries and maximizes focus time.

  • Don’t simply convert every formerly in-person meeting to a video call. Consider what’s needed and ensure all meetings have a clear purpose and agenda.

There’s no doubt that remote work has created opportunity; however, every upside has a downside that could outweigh its advantages. With an intentional approach to keeping the best of the old and embracing the new, design leaders can craft processes, systems, and workflows that foster collaboration, increase engagement, and yield even more productive, happy teams.

If you’re a senior design, experience, or operations leader of an in-house team and want to connect to others who share your unique challenges, let’s talk. Our InsideOut community hosts virtual roundtables to support the learning, growth, and sanity of our members, and I’m honored to get to facilitate those discussions.

Experiencing other challenges leading virtual design teams? Please share in the comments. Stay safe out there. Let’s keep learning together!

Aquent Off Hours

Reflections after a hard day’s work.

Susie Hall

Written by

I connect design, experience & ops leaders through live roundtables that build networks & solve real-world problems faster. Join us: aquent.com/insideout

Aquent Off Hours

Aquent Off Hours / Reflections after a hard day’s work.

Susie Hall

Written by

I connect design, experience & ops leaders through live roundtables that build networks & solve real-world problems faster. Join us: aquent.com/insideout

Aquent Off Hours

Aquent Off Hours / Reflections after a hard day’s work.

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